College-level courses offered in high school, such as Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB), do not appear to improve academic performance in college, unless students take the tests at the end of each course, according to a major study by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley.
But, the report emphasized, performing well on the difficult exams is a better predictor of success in college than nearly anything else in a student's high school record.
The report is expected to create controversy among college recruiters, high school educators and students preparing for college, because the most selective colleges virtually require that students take AP or IB. Many school districts, including several in the Washington area, give extra grade points for taking college-level courses, a practice the Berkeley researchers say may have gone too far.
The AP program, run by the New York-based College Board, is one of the fastest-growing in the country. The number of students taking AP exams rose from 133,702 in 1981 to 1,017,396 in 2004. The IB program, although much smaller, also grew rapidly.
The Berkeley study, based on a sample of 81,445 students at eight University of California campuses, contradicts in some ways a 1999 U.S. Education Department report, based on a sample of about 8,700 students, that said the more intense academic experience provided by honors or college-level courses in high school made it more likely that those students, particularly minorities, would graduate from college.
The Berkeley report, obtained yesterday by The Washington Post, is also at odds with recent research by the National Center for Educational Accountability, based on 78,079 Texas college students, that suggested even doing poorly on a college-level test in high school was more likely to improve chances of college graduation than not taking the course and test at all.
The 29-page report by Saul Geiser and Veronica Santelices did, however, endorse the view among high school educators, particularly in the Washington area, that taking AP and IB courses and tests is important preparation for college. The scores on the difficult AP tests "have a greater predictive weight [on future college academic performance] than any other factor except high school grades," the report said.
The Berkeley study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, was inspired by the University of California admissions policy of giving a full extra grade point -- making each A worth five points rather than four -- for any grade in any AP, IB or honors course, even if the student did not take the three-hour AP or five-hour IB exams.
The report notes that more than 40 percent of AP students in California may be getting that credit without taking the exams and not being any more prepared for college than students who did not take AP courses and did not get the extra grade point. This is particularly unfair to low-income and minority students who "typically have less access to AP courses than those from schools with higher college-going rates," the report said.
"Admissions officers need to reconsider the manner in which AP and honors courses are treated in 'high stakes' admissions," the report said. "Such reconsideration assumes special importance in light of the disparity in AP honors participation among groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education."
Washington area AP and IB administrators said the report buttressed their own view that the college-level courses risk being diluted by weak or uncertain teachers unless all students in them are required to take the May exams, which are written and scored by outside experts.
Bernadette Glaze, specialist for advanced academic programs in the Fairfax County schools, said that her system began to require that all AP and IB students take the final examinations in 1998. Schools delete the bonus half-point from the grade of any student who does not take the test. The grades on AP and IB exams are not received until midsummer and do not affect report card grades.
Erin McVadon Albright, the IB coordinator at Annandale High School in Fairfax County, said the report confirmed the importance of good teaching and giving the exams.
William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard University, said his school looks at actual AP and IB test scores, and he believes the bonus points given by many schools are not of much use.
Geiser said in an interview that there are major problems with requiring AP or IB tests for college admissions, such as putting minorities at a disadvantage, adding to students' test burdens, and creating confusion about honors courses other than AP and IB.